before we get into this interview...
When we set out to photograph local families in their homes, this is the first place we ended up. I've known some of this family for decades, known in the sense that we've bumped around in a small town with all kinds of crossover that waxes and wanes with the seasons and the years. Their parents, like many of ours, left various lives in the city or across the country to come and make a home in the woods, way down bumpy dirt roads, unplugged and off-grid to grow some food, a family, or a community. A common denominator with the folks we seem to want to photo-document is a sense of reclusiveness, such that it's an absolute honor to be invited in with cameras and curiosity. We initially intended to do oral interviews, but something gets lost in translation between their voices and my fingers that feels subject to my own projections. These interviews are way more direct and honest. The images captured by the ever talented Kat Alves, tell their own stories.
That said, a few scribbled notes gleaned eagerly from the matriarch of this homestead (who I could have listened to for days) are worth sharing. They drove out with a 3yr old baby from NY to CA because they wanted to see the country before leaving (for good for political and social reasons) and ended up renting in Lake County, CA, a few hours from here. They were given a contact of another couple headed out this way that they serendipitously ran into in a laundromat in Calistoga, CA. In this chance meeting they caught wind of the fabled Yuba River. When they came out and beheld what locals know as Bald Mountain they knew they were home. They arrived here in 1971. There were no phone lines, no power lines, no plumbing, only spring water and a very rough dirt road. Six women had been living on the land prior, and prior to that for thousands of years, before the riverbeds and hillsides were scoured for gold, it was home to the Nisenan.
Three kids were born in this house, with the same midwife. A few locals helped build the addition to the original farm house, poet Gary Snyder among them. Theo and his wife Jaimie, also a local, had two of their kids on this same property. With a Buddhist, diplomat father and a mother who was a hard-working homesteader of the original kind, who's family was among the first to arrive here with the wave of "back-to-the-landers," there is a rich living history on this land. There's a lot of idealization of communal living and hippie homesteading, but these folks weren't doing it for fashion or attention. They were radical. They were abandoning convention, protesting the status quo, turning their attention away from consumerism, and re-establishing a relationship to place. They were willing to live with less. They were working their asses off and learning first hand how to live with each other, how to depend and be depended on by neighbors and friends. They had a determination and a wildness of spirit that led to some of the most beautiful, unconventional homes and lives. This one is a true work of art, with all of it's leaks and tilts and inclusion of the elements. Now three grown children and four grandchildren live on this land with their mother and grandmother, respectively, in various structures. Even though I see through the idyllic illusion, it's still a bit of a dream. Here's how husband and wife, Jaimie and Theo (the baby of the family, pronounced Tay-O) answered our questions. We gave most of them to Theo, being his family's land, but wanted Jaime's input as well, being a hard working mama herself and the one holding down the fort most days.
How long have you lived here?
Theo: When asked how long I have lived here, I usually respond forty years because I was born at this place, live here now, and I am forty. But during that time, I've lived elsewhere, the north coast of Arcata, CA being the longest at three and half years. I came home for summers, though.
I am native, meaning I was born here, though I've got my share of European guilt. My folks purchased the property in 1971. They came here on a tip from friends (who still live here in Nevada City) who came out to be a part of the spiritual community called Ananda. Go Yogi!
Jaime: My first home was in Chicago Park, a neighboring small town near my grandparents.
You're both locally grown kids, how did you two meet?
Jaimie: I remember being formally introduced on the street when I was bout 18, but Theo doesn't remember that. We both remember running into each other multiple times in Nevada City the next summer and there were some sparks, but I think we were both flying in different directions in our lives and it wasn't until a year later that we actually started dating. Theo is a few years older than me and our families ran in different circles so we really didn't know each other growing up. Even though we went to the same little country school he was an older kid and I knew who he was, our paths just didn't cross.
You live on a homestead with several family members, can you say a little about who’s there and what that’s like?
Theo: We live here on the compound/homestead with my mother, brother, his son, and my sister and her husband. It is to our great fortune that my folks were hoping that some or all of us would stick around or return to this property when they bought it. There are four children, and four parcels. For a long time, I was the only one with a set plan to be here. On the rare occasion that I wavered from that plan, my dad was quick to call bullshit and would yell, "If none of you are going to stay with us out here, we're going to sell and move to the South of France". The South of France was his go to place whenever things got rough around here. The scale was almost tipped when GW stole the election. At that time, us being here was the only thing that kept him from actually going. Bless his soul.
Living this close to your siblings has joys and challenges. I think it can be related to any communal living where you just want to be alone sometimes and you can't. As a family, it can get even more complicated because there are difficulties in defining boundaries and priorities with respect to the family I've created vs. the family I was born into, and making sure spouses are empowered to partner in this living. Then there are the moments when we all come together and accomplish monumental tasks together, like pulling Scotch Broom, or when my brother helps me with duties like firewood and failing structures, broken pipes, pig castration, etc.
Jaime: It's sort of an interesting situation as someone who has married into it. There are occasional challenges. Fortunately, I adore all of Theo's family immensely. They are good raucous fun and I usually don't stop laughing when everyone is around. It's always been wonderful to be so near Theo's mom. She is an anchor for all of us and leads by example. She has spent decades here gardening and canning and upholding a standard of beauty and harmony in her environment. That I find really admirable. She has also been wonderfully supportive with my children.
What's it like raising children in a fairly isolated rural setting? Why do you choose this over the seemingly easier option of living in town?
Overall, I'm really glad we have chosen this so far. We feel so safe and nurtured by this land. We have generations of interesting and kind friends nearby. It is a pretty cozy existence out here. Despite the conveniences of town living, there is an ease and simplicity here that we would loose in town. I plan my life around where I live. There is nothing like not getting into our car for days at a time, not having to hear the sounds of vehicles, bringing our food in from the garden and making meals from scratch with what is on hand because going to the store means 3.5 miles of dirt each way, and that's a small country store. I'm not all hermit, though. Wireless internet, satellite television and dinner parties are a must. It is getting more difficult with the kids as they get older and get more involved in extracurriculars, which is why we have chosen a hybrid homeschool option. They are beginning to ask for more time at school and more time with friends so we will see. Whatever changes we end up making, this place will always be home.
What do you hope your children will have acquired from growing up here?
Theo: Raising children here has always been part of my plan, a plan based on the childhood that I had here. I guess that I would want the same or similar aspects to be passed down to our children. When I think about growing up out here, I never think of the house. The house has just a small place in my memories of country living. My memories are of endless summers of swimming in the ponds, riding our bikes on trails that we made ourselves, building complex forts and tree dwellings. At one point, without our parents consent or knowledge, we created a logging camp and started cutting down numbers of trees with a two person saw. The trees were small at first, but we naturally moved on to bigger and bigger ones until we had one lean back on the saw and get stuck. That saw stayed stuck in the tree for months until my dad asked where it was. He was not impressed.
We didn't have TV for a long time. I remember having to entertain ourselves and not having any trouble doing that. I remember a feeling of pure freedom and adventure as long as we checked back in. That plan didn't always work because kids loose track of time when they are having a lot of fun, but most of the time it did.
Even though this is a different time, I really strive to allow a little taste of that for our children. For them to know the birds names that they hear, or the names of the plants and trees that they see. To smell the earth and to be able to dig into it, real dirt unmolested by human waste, that alone is enough. Even if our children decide to live in urban environments, they will know nature and know that it is there for them as a safe place to be. A place to be nourished, a place that is wild, but generous.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT MAKES THIS PLACE FEEL LIKE HOME? WHAT DO YOU MISS WHEN YOU'RE AWAY?
Theo: What I miss the most when I am not here is the nature, in a directs sense, of this place. There is a cocktail of smells and sounds that is unique to this place we call home. It is the Black Oak and Ponderosa Pine duff with waves of kitkitdizze and manzanita, all coming and going in the wind, taking turns of who's on top. Dry grass dampened by dew and warming in the morning sun. It is this with the call of the Robin, the Flicker, the Acorn woodpecker, Blackheaded Grossbeak. Wind coursing through pine needles creating a whirr, the crackle of falling oak leaves, the low and distant rush of the Yuba, more so at night, the screech Owl and the stars. All of this makes me feel at home and I have found nothing like it anywhere else on the planet.
Can you describe your family livlihood? What is behind the name "Homestead Custom Sawmilling?"
Jaime: This is really a question for Theo, but we did think of the name together. Our typical customer is a homeowner who wants to use his/her own tress for building projects and wants to bring back more of a connection to their surroundings. We see mobile sawmilling as extensions of both the locavore and DIY movements - and that's really what homesteading was, by necessity. The name evokes a time and place when people were more connected to all of the processes involved in their survival. If one wanted to build a house, they had to go cut the tress and skin the bark and raise the house. The word "homestead" honors that way of life and hopefully speaks to people who would like to close the gap between us and where our things come from.
Theo: I am a woodsman, lumberjack, miller, self employed with chainsaws, tractor, and a mobile sawmill. I enjoy it and have had moments when it has been my passion, but more than anything, it's a trade that made sense for me. Growing up this far out makes a job in town less attainable. We never spent much time in town and a career in the woods became self evident as I grew older and strong enough to run a saw. I also play music and dabble in other artistic outlets. I have a long line of artists in my lineage and have always felt that I am obligated to continue in that vein to honor the genes that I have inherited. My father imprinted the notion in me that life was not being completely lived if one was not immersed in some sort of artistic endeavor. To work a job was only a stepping stone to afford time to further a deeper understanding of consciousness through the arts. Music is what I do most. I play the guitar and do my best at song writing. I get a lot of material for song writing from the work that I do. I write best when I have been working hard and I have sometimes wondered if one would not work without the other. Without a doubt, nature has a big influence in how my music sounds and the lyrcs I write. Love, hard work, wild land, lack of money, and the way they all move in and out of each other, produces a lot of good song writing material.
Anyone you have admired in your life or looked to for inspiration? If not a person, perhaps a practice or teaching?
Theo: As for people that I have admired, there are many out here in the woods. I have been very impressed with the working class out here, Bob Erickson, furniture builder extraordinaire from scratch, self made professional craftsman artist. Lenny Brackett, super refined Japanese house builder, wood hoarder, master of falconry. Don Mossman, chiseled outdoor adventurer machinist with no fear, the Skoverskies, 3rd/4th generation loggers with epic work ethic and dry, conservative wit and humor. Walt Whittlesey, tough ass hard working timberfaller, a man of few but well picked words who's favorite conversation opener is, "You know what pisses me off ?" Then of course the obvious, Gary Snyder and his amazing ability to simply connect work, play and nature in wholesome words that suck the reader into believing that it is all possible. There are really so many, I was raised by one of the greats. Through my fathers influence, I have always been drawn to eastern religion, but have in no way embraced it or any other religion. In a strange dichotomy, I am a true believer in nature, natural selection, live and then die, decompose back into the earth to finally become nothing more than earth, the cruel at times, and then nurturing at others, nature, but then I have confidence in some sort of spiritual reality. Reincarnation? Spirit floating up and away from your body. I don't know, but there is definitely something more going on than what is right in front of our faces.
What do you like to surround yourself with?
Jaimie: Creativity, music, beauty, old shit.
Theo: I like to surround myself with calm and love. I don't like pain or suffering. I avoid conflict at all costs. Strange that I have chosen a field that is loud, dusty, and creates havoc. There is a peaceful center to all of it though, just like a trained warrior in the heat of battle, with the confidence behind skill, the chaos has a foundation similar to a well executed dance. There is a joy that comes with that sort of control.
Can you share something about yourself that you're not apt to share publicly, something even those close to you might not know?
Theo: As for something that I do not share with others and that others might not know. Even though my saw shed and other sheds become wrecked heaps of tools and trash sometimes, that I will have more loose ends than a frayed rope at times, and that I love to work but I am terrible at business, I am at my best when everything is in its place. All things have a balance depending on their location and size of where they need to be. The relation to the computer, to the printer to the key pad and mouse, and the coaster for your drink are very important. The order of events in the process of cleaning a kitchen is set in stone. In other words, behind this laid back, musician, artist, logger that just wants to get along, I am anal as fuck.
Can you talk about the real aspects of living in an aging hand-made house that looks like it's from a fairy tale?
Jaime: In times past, and not count in fairy tales, people were cold and lived with less comfort in general, to say nothing about rodents. Our home is no different. Theo's father is no longer here to tell us what really inspired him to build in this way, but I'm sure he drew on a combination of his particular European upbringing, using wood and salvage materials, and the back to the land movement of the early '70's. The result was incredibly romantic and magical, though a bit of an illusion. We are all very attached to this home, but sadly none of it was built to last. It's era is passing and with it a good chunk of my husband's family memories. The thing with living in it is that the need for comfort and surroundings that are not in a state of decay comes to outweigh the romance of the past.